French-Algerian colonial history, its aftermath, and the stereotypical portrayal of the ’other’ in French art history are the overall focus points of the Danish-French artist, Johannes Sivertsen’s first major solo show The Unnamed.
Having grown up in the suburbs of Paris, the artist has witnessed, at first hand, the consequences of the French colonization of Algeria (1830 – 1962) and experienced the reality among those left unrepresented and ‘without a voice’. As an artist, Johannes Sivertsen uses his paintings to create visual analogies by constructing fictitious parallel worlds, that are based on concrete events and people who never made it into the history books. Since Western (art) history, to a large extent, is an expression of white male narratives, victories, and views, Sivertsen considers it of paramount importance to present a new perspective that allows hitherto overlooked groups to step onto the art-historical scene and have their say.
In the exhibition The Unnamed, Sivertsen specifically addresses a fraught and untold part of French-Algerian history by assigning identity and voices to a number of Algerian women and freedom fighters ignored by the history books. Sivertsen has worked to create a different representation of these women than the one which, for centuries, has emerged from classical European and, notably French, painting tradition by male artists where “Middle Eastern” women are portrayed as exotic objects of desire.
The Unnamed presents a series of twenty-two paintings, dedicated to a wide spectrum of women in Algerian history from the period of colonization (1830-1962) until the present. The motivic models for the paintings are based on art-historical icons, archive photos, and films, but also texts by Algerian writers including Assia Djebar and Wassyla Tamzali. Stylistically they mime the French Romantic and Oriental painting familiar from history painters like Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Amongst the paintings, one encounters a portrait of Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, a freedom fighter opposed to the French conquest of Algeria between 1849 and 1857; one of Djamilla Bouhired, an officer in the National Liberation Front (FLN) and member of the so-called bomb squad; and another portraying Zhoulikha Oudai, a woman who led an FLN network in the mountain area of Chenoua when she fought the French army until she was captured, tortured, and murdered. There are also portraits of anonymous female warriors, demonstrators, and activists in the present-day Algerian protest movement, Hirak, as well as representations of another and often forgotten heroic role: the housewife and the working woman.
In 2019, Sivertsen contacted the Algerian writer, lawyer, feminist and former UNESCO-ambassador Wassyla Tamzali (f.1941), who, since the 1960s, has worked with the plight of women in Algeria. Being strongly inspired by her book Une femme en colère (An Angry Woman) Sivertsen instigated a dialogue where he invited Tamzali to critique and challenge his portrayal of history in his work. As a result of their collaboration, Sivertsen invited Tamzali to curate a show within his own exhibition, thereby providing space for two Algerian female contemporary artists – Nawel Louerrad and Fella Tamzali Tahari – to present their works alongside Sivertsen’s paintings.
With The Unnamed, Johannes Sivertsen examines the prevailing idea of the white male’s objective gaze and hence also the predefinition of his own gaze. He questions common visual modes of expression where dominance is partly inherited and partly deeply embedded in art history and painterly practices. By including Louerrad and Tamzali Tahari’s works, Sivertsen tries to pass on his privileged position and allow his own narrative to follow in the footsteps of the unnamed women who helped shape Algeria’s resistance movement against French colonial power. Hereby retelling and accentuating their narratives and allowing new contemporary female voices to be seen and heard.
Johannes Sivertsen (b. 1984 in Paris) is a graduate from Ateliers Beaux-Arts de La Glacière in Paris (2008) and Funen Art Academy (2014). Within recent years he has exhibited at I:Project Space in Beijing, JCE Biennalen in Montrouge, Gallery SPECTA and Ringsted Galleriet. He is furthermore part of the exhibition space OK Corral, Copenhagen.
The exhibition is supported by the Beckett Foundation, William Demant Foundation, Knud Højgaard Foundation, Augustinus Fonden, The Obel Family Foundation, and Cité internationale des arts, Paris.
Please find more information on the exhibition in this Q&A with Johannes Sivertsen: “Q&A: Johannes Sivertsen on the unnamed, the collapse of stories, corona lockdown in Paris – and his upcoming solo exhibition”
Opening reception September 11th from 12 noon -8 pm
The exhibtion runs from September 12th – November 8th 2020